Isle of Tiree: Population 653 (2011), Mull Group, Inner Hebrides
Somehow a month slipped by between my last Hebridean island and today, and it’s felt like no more than 4 or 5 days. It’s scary just how fast time flies when we’re too busy with our “must do this today” day jobs… just another example of why we should all make the most of our time; blink and a month’s gone by! (Since writing this intro another WEEK has gone by before I was able to post this…!!)
I realized that I needed to get back out on my Hebridean project as soon as possible, but, if I’m honest I had five or six very good business reasons not to do the trip today, but, as there are only two days a week where it’s possible to get to Tiree and back in a single day, and I’m already booked up for the next two weeks, I decided to do it today anyway, so, after a few hours sleep, I woke at 2am, packed the camera gear, filled myself with coffee, and set off at 3.30am towards the town of Oban on the west coast of Scotland.
Normally when heading for Oban this early in the morning, I’d go west through Glasgow, over the Erskine Bridge and along the western shores of Loch Lomond, but this morning was different as I knew several sets of road works lay between me and Loch Lomond, so instead I headed north towards Stirling and from there, west through the villages of Doune, Callander and Lochearnhead.
I don’t think I saw another car as I drove north along pitch black roads, through Callander and out along the shores of Loch Lubnaig. A light mist was rising from the loch, which, combined with moonlit hills and wisps of vapour swirling around the glens on the opposite side of the loch, gave the whole scene an eerie otherworldly feel. It reminded me of a project I had planned many years ago, but, never quite got around to doing. I made a mental note to make a start on that work as soon as possible as the views this morning were exactly what I’d had planned.
If I hadn’t been on a tight schedule to get to Oban, I’d have probably pulled over and made a start on that work this morning as the conditions were perfect, but, reluctantly I continued northwards, up through Glenogle, narrowly avoiding some red deer which seemed to appear out of nowhere as they lept a small stream onto the road in front of me before just as swiftly running off to the left and down towards the foot of the glen.
By the time I’d reached Loch Awe, the stars had gone and the moon had dipped so low that it seemed to sit on the summits of the hills as I drove through the narrow Pass of Brander. A little later, as I reached the outskirts of Oban, it had sunk even lower and appeared huge over the houses on the opposite side of the bay, so I pulled over and snapped a quick shot. (apologies as it’s hand-held so a little shaky!)
I made my way to the car park near the ferry terminal, changed to my walking boots – still caked in blood red mud from my walk two days earlier at the Devil’s Pulpit – then walked around past the station to the terminal to buy my tickets for today’s adventure.
I’m not sponsored in any way by Caledonian MacBrayne (I did ask them at the start of this project if they’d be interested in featuring my blogs on their social media – an offer which they completely ignored…) but I have to say, the cost to visit the Hebridean islands has really come down in recent times…
Four hours sailing each way, so, an eight hour cruise in total, for just £20.60 return. You can’t beat that!
The sun had risen by the time we slipped berth and began the outward journey, past Kerrera and out into open water as we headed towards the Sound of Mull.
The weather was perfect, so after a quick coffee to wake myself up, I headed out onto the deck to snap some photos of Mull and the mainland as we sailed along the narrow Sound of Mull which separates the island from the Ardnamurchan peninsula.
(Above: Mull from the ferry / Below: Ardnamurchan)
As we approached Tobermory, it quickly got around the deck that dolphins had been spotted swimming alongside the ferry, so we all headed over to the side to see if we could spot (or photograph!) them…
With around an hour to go before our first stop at the Island of Coll, I decided to head indoors for some breakfast as I wasn’t sure what the food situation would be like once I got to Tiree and as I hadn’t eaten today I thought it was a good idea to have a meal before the planned 5hr hike on Tiree…
I got some breakfast and settled down at a window to watch the world go by when something caught my eye just at the side of the ferry… a couple of dolphins were swimming alongside the ferry, just under the surface, then suddenly they’d leap out of the water before plunging back under. It was fascinating to see – and so close I could almost touch them.
After a couple of minutes (or in breakfast terms: a sausage, some mushrooms and a little bit of egg…) they seemed to tire of the game and swam off back towards the open water.
I finished breakfast and was just sipping down the last of my mug of tea when I noticed, no more than 30ft from the window, a HUGE slow moving basking shark idly swimming in the opposite direction, again just under the surface, but, with it’s dark red / brown body perfectly lit by the sun against the clear blue-green water. I watched as it cruised past the ferry before gulping down the tea to get back on deck in case there were more to photograph…
Of course there wasn’t but it was great to finally see a basking shark in the wild. That was a first for me! Magnificent creatures.
As I’d been eating, we had sailed out into the Sea of the Hebrides and continued across to the first stop of the day, Arinagour on the Isle of Coll.
I have to confess, I was tempted to hop off the ferry here and count Coll as island number 18 – but that wouldn’t be fair to the 192 good people who live on the island, and I certainly couldn’t do the place justice in just 15 minutes, so I stayed on board and snapped a couple of reference shots as we waited for the cars to disembark, and the Coll vehicles to board.
(above: The Isle of Coll, with The Isle of Eigg beyond)
I’m going to say something stupid now… something that could probably only come from a city dweller who grew up in a Glasgow tenement miles from the sea… but, you really only begin to appreciate the relationships between the various islands off the west coast when you start sailing around them all. You can look at a map as often as you like and convince yourself that you know the geography of your country very well, but, it’s not until you actually get out there and sail around that you really get a feel for where everything is relative to everything else…
For some reason I hadn’t expected to see the small isles of Eigg, Muck, Rum and Canna today, nor the Black Cuillin of Skye, or the Paps of Jura.
Anyway… cars loaded and new passengers on board, we set off once more to head for Tiree, second of three stops and my destination.
Its another 40 minutes or so to Tiree, so I headed back inside to wait out the rest of the trip with a comfortable seat, as I wasn’t expecting to be seated much on Tiree!
We docked and I made my way down the walkway and onto Tiree, the most westerly of the Inner Hebrides and the 17th island in my quest to visit all of the permanently inhabited Hebridean islands.
I only knew one or two things about Tiree before I arrived, and some of that came from a Billy Connolly joke! (“The misty hills of Tiree”)
I knew (from the joke) that Tiree is flat – “you could play snooker on it” according to the Big Yin and indeed the highest point on the island is the summit of Ben Hynish which is just 463 ft above sea level. I also knew it was home to a sizeable population of Corn Crakes, a relatively rare bird in the UK.
So off I set to explore parts of the north western end of the island, as the ferry left for it’s third port of the day, Castlebay on the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides.
My planned walk took me out from the main village of Scarinish and north towards Traigh Mhor bay, turning left at Gott and heading out, away from the coast towards Loch Riaghain, and the western coast of the island.
(above: the extremely flat Tiree landscape with Loch Riaghain in the foreground)
Just before I reached the western coast I stopped to watch an aerial battle between a Heron (I know what they look like) and another “big brown bird” – which I later had identified (thanks to the Boardman’s for the help!) as a Skua. The battle raged for a while but as I’m not a wildlife photographer I was totally unprepared for the tussle and only managed to snap a few images using what is probably one of the worst lenses for wildlife photography… a 35mm wide angle!
Battle over, at least for me, I continued on westwards towards the coast past another 2 or 3 small lochs before the scene opened up in front of me and I had my first view of the west coast of Tiree and out in the distance, the Outer Hebrides on the horizon.
The route I had planned for today took me out to one of Tiree’s best known features, the Ringing Stone, a huge boulder balanced on other smaller stones which, when struck, rings with a metallic sound. The stone was obviously important to ancient people as it was carved, over 4500 years ago, with elaborate cup and ring markings.
Of course, I had to try to get the stone to ring. I struck it with a stone from the shore and sure enough it rings with an odd, metallic sound. I tried a few more times and quickly discovered it’s a bit of a hit and miss thing, some times it rings, other times it doesn’t.
From the ringing stone, I continued northeast towards the Dun Mor broch, an ancient circular fort, thought to date from the 1st century AD. The broch lies on the crest of a hill with great views out towards the small isles of Eigg and Rum.
After a wander around Dun Mor, I followed the coastal route southeast towards the stunningly beautiful beach of Traigh Bhalla before turning almost due south across the island to reach Traigh Mhor again for the long walk back to Scarinish.
(above: Traigh Bhalla / below: Traigh Mhor)
I wandered back across Traigh Mhor towards Scarinish, pausing every few minutes to grab photos. It’s beautiful on a nice day and I’d definitely recommend a trip to Tiree if you get the chance!
I arrived back at Scarinish slightly early (an hour) for the ferry trip back to Oban, so I did what I always do… I found a pub! I settled down in the Scarinish Hotel with a beer (from my hometown of Glasgow) and did a spot of people watching… my favourite hobby…!
You learn a lot about a place by sitting down where people feel comfortable and just listening. Today was no different. I’ll not share what I heard as there’s every chance some of the people involved could read this, but, I learned a lot about island life, and, inter-island rivalry! I learned about how people plan their life around the daily ferry visits and, more importantly, the winter / summer timetables. It’s fascinating stuff and to someone like me who grew up no more than a few miles from the centre of the biggest city in my country, the second city of the entire British Empire, it’s riveting to listen to people discuss plans which involve a 4 hr sailing and a 3hr drive.
I honestly don’t know if I’d have the patience for that kind of life, but, I’m in total awe of those who do.
So… I started the day doubting if I should go and, if i’m honest, a lot of the problems which I feared might happen did happen – but, I’m so glad I took the time to visit Tiree. It’s a beautiful island which, as I’ve only seen about a third of it, is already drawing me back to visit again.
We sailed home, first to Coll, then back along the Sound of Mull, but, exhausted, I didn’t take many photos. The early rise and the prospect of another 2.5hrs drive home (coupled with a 7am start tomorrow…) seemed to take the edge off any creative enthusiasm I might have felt.
We landed, on time, I walked back to the car, changed my boots – this time caked in silver sand – then set off home. A perfect day and one I’m very glad I had.